Magazine article The Futurist

Eldering: Aging with Resilience: As Populations Grow Older in Developed Countries, Societies Are Meeting the Challenges of Aging with Newfound Resilience. by Tapping the Maturity and Improved Vitality of Their Seniors, Families May Grow Stronger, Economies More Sustainable, and Nations More Peaceful

Magazine article The Futurist

Eldering: Aging with Resilience: As Populations Grow Older in Developed Countries, Societies Are Meeting the Challenges of Aging with Newfound Resilience. by Tapping the Maturity and Improved Vitality of Their Seniors, Families May Grow Stronger, Economies More Sustainable, and Nations More Peaceful

Article excerpt

Can you hear the ticking of a demographic time bomb? As the population ages, there will be fewer workers putting money into the system to cover the costs of government programs that pay out lifetime benefits, from pensions to Social Security and Medicare. Simply put, when there are more grandmothers than babies, the system is in trouble.

But in this time of crisis, communities and families are drawing on their resilience and resourcefulness in ways that are truly transformational. "Post-nuclear" families in the United States are reextending to embrace multiple generations. More than 6 million elder Americans now live with their children, a number that increased by more than 50% between 2000 and 2010, according to the Census Bureau.

While institutionalized care was once seen as inevitable, the number of people over the age of 75 in nursing homes has been dropping since the mid-1980s. Part of this trend is accounted for by the increase in multigenerational households, but other factors are also involved. Improvements in longevity mean that many people are able to delay going to a nursing home. Also, more families have part-time help available to provide caregiving services for their parents.

Fewer adults over 65 are living alone; those who do live alone are more likely to report that they are not in good health, and that they are sad, depressed, or lonely, compared with their peers who are either living with a spouse or another family member, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Continued work is another source of resilience for an "eldering" population. A second career for many early retirees means personal retooling and rebranding. Some are going back to school and living on campus. More than 50 universities in the United States now offer "senior housing" either on the edge of campus or within short walking distance. The Village at Penn State University offers a continuum of care, including independent living, assisted living, and a skilled nursing facility. For those with the intellectual interest and the financial reserves, this may become an increasingly popular option.

Economic Impacts of the Elder Boom

With all of the gifts of longevity, we may find that an aging population is one that requires significant care and attention. While we can only hope that our elder population will be healthy and active, gains in longevity sometimes come with the cost of living with frailty. Living longer can sometimes mean living a more limited life--economically, mentally, and physically. Half of all people over the age of 65 have at least two chronic health conditions. Meanwhile, a study from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that only one-fifth of Americans over the age of 65 stay physically active on a regular basis.

We may soon see the first generation in history to spend more time caring for elderly parents than for children, as Ted Fishman writes in A Shock of Gray (Scribner, 2010). There are multiple factors that support the trend toward greater longevity, he notes. The population shift toward urban centers and improvements in education, public health, access to medical care, and reliable treatments for infections are the "main ingredients for a potion that foils early death and gives us the joys and sorrows of longer lives."

The same developments that enable a culture to become modernized will also change the demographic mixture of its population. Literacy gives women a choice between focusing on career or on family. The pursuit of higher levels of education may delay the start of childbearing for some. Moving a large segment of the population away from farms and into cities, where people can be more productive and enjoy higher access to health care, is another factor.

Eventually, this turns the demographic pyramid upside down, with a profusion of elders and a vastly diminished number of children. The countries that experienced early modernization will be among the first to experience the full effects of the "age wave. …

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